Mentor to an Icon: A Charles Lisanby and Andy Warhol Exhibit Opens JMU's New Skyline Museum

Andy Warhol drawing of Charles Lisanby

Andy Warhol drawing of Charles Lisanby.

The College of Visual and Performing Arts at James Madison University is marking the grand opening of the Skyline Museum on the ground floor of the Festival Conference Center with Mentor to an Icon: A Charles Lisanby and Andy Warhol Exhibit. The exhibit highlights Lisanby’s most important contributions to the arts of television and scenic design, as well as introduces his relationship with Andy Warhol. The exhibit runs from January 23 through March 2, 2012.

Over his nearly 50-year career, Lisanby became inarguably the most influential scenic designer ever. He won three Emmys, was nominated for 13 more, and in January 2010 became the first and only production designer to be inducted into the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Hall of Fame. Lisanby was integral in developing color television, as we know it today. Along with designing the first telecast in color for CBS—an episode of a 1957 musical show called The Big Record—Lisanby helped develop techniques that expanded the possibilities of what sets could look like. Among these were a means to use neon without producing a buzzing sound, lighted steps, and large block letters in which actors could sit.

Lisanby’s worldly travels and extreme ambition took scenic design to new heights with monumental set pieces such as his Parisian street set, which created an enormous buzz across Hollywood and the entire industry. Lisanby received his big break in 1948 when Ralph Levy hired him to design the set for an experimental broadcast of Billy the Kid, the first non-news program on evening television. Working for CBS, ABC, NBC and others on made-for-television movies, mini-myseries, musicals, ballets and Broadway shows, Lisanby influenced nearly every aspect of scenic design in all mediums in which he worked.

A lesser-known chapter of Lisanby’s life-—but one equally integral to his artistic legacy—is his close friendship with the artist Andy Warhol. After their initial introduction at a party in late 1955, Lisanby and Warhol met up or talked on the phone daily. The two young artists convened on the weekends to draw the various accoutrements that filled Lisanby’s New York apartment, sharing ideas and techniques that would greatly influence both men’s careers.

In April of 1956, the two departed on a four-month excursion around the world, visiting various countries in Latin America, Asia, and Europe. The influence of this trip on Warhol, who had previously never been outside Pittsburgh or New York, was profound. Characteristics like the flat, simple contours and cropping of Japanese prints, the use of gold in Siamese furniture, and the delicacy with which mystical and fantastical fairies are rendered in Netherlandish children’s books, all contributed to Warhol’s now-dubbed “Pop art.”

Contact Jen Kulju, PR coordinator at the College of Visual and Performing Arts, at (540) 568-4394 or by e-mail at kuljuja@jmu.edu for further information. You can also vist http://www.jmu.edu/madisonart/skyline.

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